Belarus’s government opened a criminal investigation on Thursday into the opposition’s efforts to “seize power,” as President Alexander Lukashenko tries to assert authority over the country after nearly two weeks of protests over a disputed election.
On August 9, Lukashenko — Belarus’s first and only president for the past 26 years — won a sixth consecutive presidential term. The vote was immediately contested by dissidents, who took to the streets to protest the election results as rigged by the state election committee. The protests have continued nationwide for the past 12 days despite a severe pushback by state security forces, which the U.S. and the European Union (E.U.) have condemned.
On Wednesday, the E.U. — of which Belarus is not a member — said it refused to recognize the August 9 election results as legitimate and vowed to impose sanctions on Belarus officials “responsible for violence, repression, and election fraud.” Belarus is wedged precariously between eastern Europe and Russia, its traditional ally.
Supporters of Lukashenko’s main opposition challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has fled to neighboring Lithuania, formed a Coordination Council earlier this week to “oversee efforts for a peaceful transition of power,” according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). The group “called for a new election and talks with the authorities during its first meeting on Wednesday.”
Belarus Prosecutor General Alexander Konyuk condemned the Coordination Council’s creation as unconstitutional. “The creation and activities of such a council are aimed at seizing power,” he said in a video statement on Thursday. Konyuk added that an official government investigation into “calls for actions aimed at undermining national security” had been launched. In Belarus, people found guilty of the charge face a maximum penalty of five years in prison, according to the report.
As part of the criminal investigation, two leading members of the opposition council were questioned by authorities on Friday, Reuters reported.
“Dozens of supporters accompanied Maksim Znak and Sarhey Dyleuski as they arrived for questioning at the headquarters of the Investigative Committee. Znak, a lawyer, said on entering that he feared he might be arrested. But when he emerged later, he said he had ‘productive discussions’,” the report stated.
On Thursday, Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei admitted that “change is needed” in Belarus. “No one is denying that, but not at the cost of civil confrontation or a revolution,” Makei said, according to AFP.